Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Reflecting on Peterson (part two)

Hear the words “institution”, “structure”, or “administration,” and one can be forgiven if some begin to look for an exit. This is not nail biter language, though I must admit that for a good segment of my church—who are engineers—rules of order, by laws, and procedural rules are quite exciting themes. Over the years in various churches, I have met the type who would not hesitate to affix the sticker, “I Brake for Meetings,” to their cars; who study the church constitution as carefully as they study God’s Word; and who look forward to annual meetings as some look forward to the Super Bowl.

But whether we like these ordered words or not, we can’t escape them. They are a necessary part of ministry.  As Neuhaus put it in Freedom for Ministry, “Even the most spontaneous and prophetic of movements cannot last unless they find institutional form.”

Still, an increasing number of people are distancing themselves from anything institutional. Faith that is in vogue is faith that is spiritual, faith that is deep and personal. It prides itself on not being attached to any structure. It is common to hear the words, “I’m into spirituality—not organized religion.” On the surface, it has an air of sophistication to it. There is a pull to join this movement. But it is not a movement, for then there would have to be some structure, some order. The reality is that God has saved us into a community, and community without institutional backbone collapses to the floor in a puddle.[1] There is no other church of historical or social significance that impacts culture than the church in all its sweaty, smelly, concreteness.

This is not to say pastors do not struggle with institutionalism, especially when the organization begins to become more important than the organism. In his Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson admitted to his own struggles with the stuff of committees and boards and reports and metrics.  While grateful for the ecclesiastical institution that ordained him and put him to work, he came face to face with “institutional sin”–writing reports that no one read, or becoming so bogged down with meetings that the real work of worship and witness and mission were compromised. He is right—it is all too easy to slip into a managerial role that crowds out the mostly quiet work of spiritual direction.

It all led to his decision to resign from this church ministry. The church he had planted was organizing and growing; meanwhile, he was becoming less a pastor and more a “branch manager in a religious warehouse outlet.”  Compulsive work habits began to get a grip on him. He found he was no longer a pastor who had time for prayer and relationships. Forces were creeping in to keep him from studying God’s Word. No longer was he praying slowly and lovingly, or engaging in deep community. All of these, as he puts it, were being pushed to the fringes.

This happens, especially in larger churches. If I am not careful, I can find myself “running a church” rather than shepherding a community. I can betray my calling, one I was wonderfully reminded of last night in an ordination service. This is why I read Peterson often.  God continues to use him to help me recover my vocation. When Peterson approached his board with his decision to depart, he found to his surprise that they wanted him to still be their pastor. They responded to his frustration with these words—“How about you let us learn how to run the church and we let you learn how to be a pastor?” It was then Peterson felt the freedom to embrace the pastoral vocation.

In the book Pastoral Work: Engagements with the Vision of Eugene Peterson, some of the writers were tasked to reflect upon Peterson and institutions. It is here Peterson receives some criticism. They appreciate Peterson’s courage to take on an institutional framework that obscures the essential angles of ministry—prayer, scripture, and spiritual direction. It is fine to take on any denominational drudge who has allowed the ministry to be all about financial reports and attendance graphs. But Peterson’s scorn for these things can encourage some (less careful in their reading) to dismiss the institutional church.  Worse, they may be encouraged to an individualism and idealism that embraces the inward and the spiritual at the expense of the public side of faith and community. And this will come at the cost of witness.

It is the church gathered, the church visible, the church in concrete form, and the church with a certain order that enables us to aspire to a long obedience. If we are to be a community of resistance, living out the reality of the kingdom of God, some institutional form is necessary. Peterson, though warning of institutional sins, would certainly agree.

[1] Pastoral Work, x.

1 Comment
  • Elizabeth Liu
    9:24 AM, 5 June 2014

    I think institutional forms and rules have always been necessary. I think God himself implemented rules in the Old Testament, certainly used rules to create the natural world where living things interact with one another, and God is definitely not a lawless or chaotic God. So I think the key to keeping institution and structure in check is to strive a humble/receptive heart that’s willing to listen, and constantly seek God’s input in EVERY decision, EVERY step of the way. Things always go awry, institutional or individual, when we assume too much, go on autopilot and block out God’s voice.

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